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Melissa M. Lee on Foreign Subversion and Ungoverned Spaces

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In this post, we ask author Melissa M. Lee some questions about her new book, Crippling Leviathan: How Foreign Subversion Weakens the State, and her research on the consequences of foreign subversion for state authority.

What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

A basic function of the state is data collection; indeed, “statistic” has etymological roots in the word “state.” As part of its effort to assess where states do not exercise authority over territory, Crippling Leviathan examines what governments do and do not know about their populations. I spent countless hours deep in statistical reports, and it is fascinating to see what information states collect! Counts of fires, goats, hospital beds, hotel rooms, even mangos. Statistical reports tell you what states value. And more interestingly, gaps in those reports tell you what the state can’t see—and where it is blind.

What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

Crippling Leviathan is an empirical study, but normative questions about governance and the state were inescapable. I had tried to sidestep these issues, but acknowledging them and embracing them actually made the book more honest and, in the end, a stronger intellectual product.

How do you wish you could change the field of Military History?

Clausewitz reminds us that war is politics by other means—a similar idea as the one expressed in SMH’s 2020 conference theme. Crippling Leviathan takes one step further by showing that foreign subversion is war by other means. In doing so, it demonstrates the fruitfulness of thinking of war as more than just conventional military operations. Subversion can complement force, but more often it substitutes for force. Expanding our understanding of the foreign policy toolkit will lead to productive new areas of inquiry for scholars, and will better prepare practitioners to confront contemporary challenges.


Melissa M. Lee is Assistant Professor of Political and International Affairs at Princeton University. Visit melissamlee.com for more information.

Visit our virtual booth and get your copy of Crippling Leviathan with a 40% off special conference discount this #SMH2020.

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